Archive for November 2010


One Billion Dollars

November 10th, 2010 — 11:13am

Okay, anybody who still thinks people are not going to read whole books from a screen… er, you’re wrong:

http://business.financialpost.com/2010/11/09/fp-tech-desk-ebook-business-heats-up-as-sales-projections-surpass-us1-billion/

And let’s face it, e-book technology is pretty rubbish so far. I hate to think how many books these guys are going to buy when it gets good.

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Design Fiction, Science Fiction and Literary Criticism

November 6th, 2010 — 12:39pm

Last year, as I was listening to the panel debate: ‘Design Fiction: Props, Prototypes, Predicaments Communicating New Ideas’ – with speakers Bruce Sterling, Sascha Pohflepp, Jake Dugarden and Julian Bleecker at South by South West, it really came home to me that there is a wealth of material, knowledge and research in literary criticism about the problems of writing about the future that could contribute to many of the questions and debates in futurology and Design Fiction. Sci-Fi writers have already gone through many of these questions, and faced many of these problems. (I know everybody knows this already, and most of them have read more science fiction than I’ve had hot dinners, but hear me out).

It’s axiomatic, in literary criticism of Science Fiction (such as it is), to assume that Sci-Fi is written as a conscious metaphor for current questions. That is, Science Fiction uses speculation about the future as a way of analyzing the present, the here and now. Either that, or as a means of trying to answer philosophical questions that are more or less universal. To take a famous example, ‘Solaris’ by Stanislaw Lem, is nothing so much as an attempt to answer the question: ‘what is it that makes us human?’ The fact that the story takes place in the future, on another planet, if not actually incidental to that question, is simply a way of opening up new, oblique ways of approaching it. The central device in Solaris, the ability of the planet to generate or replicate organic forms, including human beings, allows Lem to present a classic philosophical dilemma in a new form: what’s the difference between you and a perfect replica of you? (the same question has been posed, albeit in a much cruder and much less poetic way, in the recent film ‘Moon’).

Now I’m not saying that Sci-fi authors aren’t trying to write about the future as well, and trying to shed some light on the possible ways in which our society and culture might develop, but they are all too aware of the difficulties this entails, and anyone who is trying to ‘prototype’ the future or create original Design Fiction would do well to study the ways in which authors have addressed these questions already.

Design Fiction uses the techniques of fiction and drama to ‘test’ the future, to see what future technologies or systems might work, and how they might be received and what their impact might be, or to present a series of alternative possible futures and see which path might be preferable. But whereas the material of speculative fiction is  words and ideas, Design Fiction actually uses prototype objects and devices in the ‘real world’ to see how they might be utilised or how people might respond to new designs or tools or scenarios. But just as with Science Fiction, Design Fiction often reveals more about current attitudes, prejudices and behaviours (or universal ones, if you believe in such things) than it does about the future.

Clearly one of the inherent problems for Design Fiction in trying to reveal something about the future is that the users of any prototype or piece of speculative design are the users of today, not tomorrow, so their assumptions and conventions are those of the present. This is a hard problem, and one that even the greatest Science Fiction writers have struggled to overcome. How can you imagine characters whose attitudes and emotions are shaped by an entirely different social and technological landscape? Tricky.

In ‘A Scanner Darkly’, Philip K Dick describes a future world in which Los Angeles and its wider conurbation have expanded to take up much of California, in which police agents are able to use special camouflage suits to disguise their identities, and in which mega corporations create new and highly toxic drugs. In many ways it’s a plausible scenario. But the characters in ‘A Scanner Darkly’, through their speech, their attitudes and their behaviour, are drawn from a very recognisable 1960s counter-culture. The book is a masterpiece for all sorts of reasons, one of which is the very accuracy with which the author depicts that particular community. But what even he can’t do is give us characters from the future. Instead what he creates is a parallel universe in which characters that we instantly recognise and empathise with are pitched into a scenario and a location that is unfamiliar. This helps us to understand how we might face the challenges they face and react to the technologies and social changes that confront them.

Design Fiction sometimes overlaps with and certainly borders closely on the world of alternate reality gaming (ARG), in which gamers compete to solve a problem or inhabit a fictional scenario ‘ITRW’. Many scenarios have been tested in this way, a World Without Oil – http://www.worldwithoutoil.org/, for instance, which helped people to adopt new patterns of beahviour and reduce their own reliance on oil. By ‘prototyping’ the future in this way, you can educate people and change behaviours now. So Design Fiction itself is not so much concerned with anticipating the future precisely, but with a kind of Situationist/activist approach to changing the present. And as I seem to be reiterating more or less constantly, in William Gibson’s brilliant phrase: ‘the future’s already here. It’s just not evenly distributed’.

One of the ironic micro-effects of science fiction (which has been well noted) is the impact it has on future generations of designers and engineers. Star Trek has often been cited as an inspiration by software engineers and physicists. It is as if by speculating about a technology in a fictional setting, the writer is almost laying down a challenge or opening a path for the scientific community to follow. There is the imaginative breakthrough first – just an idea, however implausible – and then this idea has such a strong cultural impact that real scientists find themselves trying to work out whether such a design is actually possible. The Lightsaber from Star Wars is a good example of such an idea that has had a powerful influence on speculative physics. So much so that Michio Kaku, in his Physics of the Impossible, proposed a design based on nano-batteries and high energy plasma (though not physically impossible, the MegaWatt capacity required makes this device still a distant geek-dream).

In fact, Design Fiction is a recent spin-off of Science Fiction, directly inspired by many of the imagined worlds of writers like Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, J.G. Ballard and others. It sets out to do many of the same things as Sci-Fi does, but in a more concrete way, by introducing real physical objects or real sets of rules and scenarios which require the participation (direct or indirect, voluntary or involuntary) of users, beyond just their emotional and intellectual engagement. In this way Design Fiction can ‘test’ objects or tools or storylines that Science Fiction, until recently, has not been able to. A literary work, has (in general) been a fixed text until very recently, and so even though readers have enjoyed many different readings and interpretations, the author has not been able to adapt or react to their responses. Design Fiction allows the inventor or storytellers to adapt their scenario as it evolves and as the users or participants give their reactions. Science Fiction has been immanent in a way that Design Fiction needn’t be. At least until writers started to work on collaborative stories like PerplexCity and Inanimate Alice – http://www.inanimatealice.com/

So the relationship between Design Fiction and Science Fiction is an interesting and complex one. They both have certain limitations and inherent expectations that help us to understand more about our relationships with technology, with each other and with our environment, but they also understand that their usefulness as truly predictive disciplines is less fully-formed. Design Fiction really is a nascent practice and has hardly had time to get off the ground, but I would simply encourage any designers, futurists and technologists who haven’t already done so to read as much of the great Science Fiction as they can get their hands on, and also study some of the literary debate about this work because it may hold a lot of illuminating insights into how you can go about designing the future, and where you can go wrong.

To find out more about Design Fiction, probably the best place to start is with Julian Bleecker’s essay at the Near Future Laboratory – Near Future Laboratory (but be warned, a lot of the links are broken. scroll down to the comments for more up to date versions).

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Body>Data>Space @ NESTA

November 6th, 2010 — 11:18am

Yesterday I attended a discussion at NESTA as part of the ‘Robots and Avatars’ project run by Body>Data>Space, which is a collective of artists exploring telepresence, virtuality and movement. This was the fifth and final episode in a series of ‘lunch debates’ held in collaboration with NESTA’s education team.

The theme of the discussion was ‘the future world of work’, and the idea was to get everybody to explore the kinds of skills a future workforce would need and how our education system might need to be adapted to provide those skills, or how we could encourage the education and learning sector to prioritise some of these skills and technologies.

I wasn’t at all sure what to expect, and the participants for the session were drawn from such a wide variety of organisations and backgrounds it was hard to see exactly where the discussion might lead. But this mix of ideas and perspectives actually just made the conversation more wide-ranging and interesting. There were, as always, the usual struggles to define the terms and quibbles over what the purpose of the session was, but after we got past that, there were some really interesting contributions that gave me plenty of food for thought.

The ‘provocation’ was given by Prof Anna Craft, from the University of Exeter and the Open University, and she touched on lots of interesting ideas about the need to make exploratory play a positive thing – to conceive of risk as empowering and enabling, not just dangerous and potentially damaging. She described 4 ‘P’s that she felt were critical to understanding where education needed to get to: Playfulness, Plurality, Possibility and… shit, I can never remember the last P. She described how, over the last ten years, the sector had by and large been moving in this direction, but that recently there had been signs that the new government’s vision of education might halt or reverse this trend. But I kept being brought back to the idea of how to think about the future and whether an attitude of innovation and risk-taking can ever be taught or inculcated.

It’s no good just adapting our curriculum to teach people about various new technologies, because those technologies will almost certainly change, and probably change beyond recognition before we can even design suitable teaching and assessment systems. What we really need to give students and young people is an attitude to change and employment that is positive, exploratory and not afraid of failure. That way, they will be accustomed to change and learn to live with it and enjoy the possibilities it offers, not feel scared of it.

There’s an awful lot, as Charles Leadbeter has pointed out, that we can learn from the pirates, from the hackers, from the artists and activists who have subverted and questioned the existing order and institutions. The really successful new businesses and internet services are invented by people who question the way things are now, who ask ‘what if…?’ and then follow up their question by acting ‘as if…’ things were different. We need to re-think our ideas of legitimacy and illegitimacy because a lot of the most creative work is based on or inspired by activity and ways of thinking that is subversive or illegal. How can we make use of that same kind of questioning and reverse-engineering to inspire the students and entrepreneurs of the future?

We talked a lot about collaboration and co-creation, and I think that one of the things we are still struggling with at a very basic level is the art of conversation online. It’s very difficult to have the kind of constructive, directed conversation via forums, or blogs, or twitter or IM that you would have face to face. Skype and Fring and Facetime have made it easier to raise the quality of this dialogue by bringing us face to face with each other again, but still the richness and depth of these conversations is often curtailed. Comment forums all too often display the kind of useless one-upmanship that destroys constructive collaboration. I think that one of the most important behaviours or attitudes students can learn is how to conduct respectful and interesting conversations via these types of platform. There’s a whole new type of literacy that’s needed. And even though users generally pick up or create conventions intuitively, are there ways in which we can encourage, either through the design of the applications or through teaching each other about these conventions, to use them more effectively?

One of the futurists in the room made the very salient point that it’s rather redundant to talk about the future as if it is over some far-off horizon. The future is now. The pace of technological change is only increasing, and will continue to increase, so in making arguments to government and other stakeholders about changes to the education system and new forms of pedagogy, we need to frame the debate in terms of an urgent current need, not an aspiration for some ill-defined future point. Other countries – notably South Korea and Japan – are already running ahead and teaching their students right from the earliest age about the internet and how to use it. They are not just studying spreadsheets and word documents.

There were some calls for an emphasis on traditional learning of core skills, such as mathematics, which is key to any future jobs involving computer science and engineering, and the point was made that it is vital not to dilute our support for such fundamental knowledge even as we explore the need for different teaching approaches. Surely this is correct and we can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, but at the same time the idea of an ICT syllabus has to be updated and expanded to look at much more than Microsoft Office.

Unfortunately I had to leave early, before the discussion really got into the nitty-gritty, but so many ideas and topics emerged from this one conversation that I left feeling really inspired. This is a massive subject, and one which throws up endless avenues for research and debate, some of which I might discuss at greater length in follow-up posts. If you want to read more about the event and the whole Robots and Avatars project, or even, God forbid, watch a video, you can: http://www.robotsandavatars.net/. You’ll probably see lots of shots of me awkwardly eating a Tuna sandwich in the background.

The most interesting questions for me though are still about how we can encourage people to think radically, whether it’s possible to harness the kind of creative disruption that pirates and hackers and artists thrive on, and inspire children and students to do the same. There’s a lot of talk about Entrepreneurialism at the moment, with the government’s newly minted ‘Blueprint for Technology’ (on which, more later) trying to position Britain as the place for small business and startups, and Shoreditch as the Shangri-La of entrepreneurs, but this is a totally different language and way of thinking. They are still talking about reproducing the same old patterns, the same old businesses, using the same intellectual property framework.

And what the success of really big online businesses and services has shown is that they grow because they do things differently. Spotify, which could not have happened without Napster, changed the business model for the music industry and changed licensing agreements. Facebook (like it or loathe it) changed online advertising. Scribd (and many people detest Scribd) has forced lots of changes in publishing. Amazon has completely re-written the book on bookselling and distribution, and may still do the same for publishing. Hulu has changed TV. But these businesses start with people asking the question: ‘how can we destroy the establishment?’ Don’t get me wrong, they are not truly subversive. They are not politicised in that sense, but they do seek to replace the existing order in that particular sector or industry, so that they can become the establishment.

The point I am trying to make is that it is only by asking those questions and thinking that radically that you can start to create the type of changes those companies have delivered. Unless our regulatory framework, our IP regime, our tax incentives and bankruptcy laws, and our education system are all lined up to promote and help this kind of disruptive innovation, it will not happen here. It will happen somewhere else.

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Pre-Nostalgia

November 5th, 2010 — 6:54pm

Pre-Nostalgia is the feeling of missing something before it is gone. I first remember experiencing this very clearly at the Shift Happens conference in York two years ago when Marcus Romer, the director of the Pilot Theatre, was conducting a live Skype chat with a speaker in San Francisco. Her image was projected onto a screen that covered most of the back wall of the theatre. It was early afternoon in SF, and you could tell this by the quality of the light in the study where she sat, blue halides reflecting off the walls around her. Even though the image was quite grainy and the aspect ratio was distorted, you could feel the time of day from the live stream. And that was when it hit me.

With Skype and other video calling/conferencing tools, and especially with Twitter and it successors, the feeling of ‘I wonder what so-and-so is doing right now?’ is increasingly made redundant. Bill Thompson refers to the strange sense of ESP that you start to get when you are joined to people by all of these social networking tools, and he’s right. You start to know vaguely what people are doing, what their emotional state is, and where they are, a lot, if not most, of the time. And if you want to find out, it’s as easy as pushing a button.

The technology is far from perfect, of course, and in some ways it is very unsophisticated. Twitter, for instance, often makes it impossible to tell whether someone is joking or crying, a problem with text more generally, but especailly with the 140-character status update. And Skype is still stuttery and grainy, and lots and lots of people don’t use it, or only use it sporadically, precisely because they don’t want to be online and plugged in the whole time.

But I was struck by the possibility that it would soon be commonplace for most people to be aware of each other’s actions and thoughts for a large majority of the time, and be more or less permanently connected in real time. And that would undermine the need to wonder what that other person might be thinking or feeling from time to time, that melancholy and intimate feeling of connection that occurs precisely because no physical connection exists – because you speculate, apropos of nothing, and imagine that they might be doing the same, at exactly the same moment, and that opens up a whole mirage of fate and coincidence that has a special place in our emotions (Carol Ann Duffy has a poem about exactly this feeling in ‘Rapture’ but if I reproduce it here somebody will probably sue me, so read the book, it’s great).

Anyway, this feeling of pre-nostalgia is clearly a part of our getting-to-know new technology, our getting accustomed to it and matching it to our expectations. More and more we are suddenly going to feel a sense of loss for something that has not yet gone, because we can see that it is only a matter of time before it disappears. And we can decide, increasingly, to hold onto our attachment to these sentimental pleasures, or to enjoy the new types of emotion caused by our ability to see and speak to and be with people who are many miles away.

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The Full Monty

November 3rd, 2010 — 5:38pm

In his 1968 book, ‘A History of Warfare’, Fieldmarshal (later Viscount) Montgomery of Alamein (Order of the Garter) defines the three basic components of military planning in this way, following Clausewitz:

Grand Strategy:  ‘attainment of the… goal defined by the fundamental policy’
Strategy: ‘the art of distribution’
Tactics: ‘control of military forces in actual fighting’

‘So what?’ I hear you ask. What is the relevance of this to thinking about the future in business or technology or art or any other field? Well, even though I might disagree with some of his terms, I think Montgomery’s very clear breakdown of these three different concepts gives a useful starting point for anybody thinking about planning and setting out their organisation’s objectives.

Grand Strategy is really synonymous with what we think of more usually as the ‘Mission’. It is what you want to do, overall. It’s the reason you are in business (beyond simply the Bottom Line). It should be what unites all of your efforts and all your work. Luttwak has argued, to extend the military/diplomatic analogy for a minute, that the Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, between the time of Justinian 1 (circa 527) until at least the Twelfth Century, was to allow no power or alliance of powers to develop in Persia, the Middle East, the Balkans or in the region of today’s Georgia and Ukraine, that could threaten Constantinople. Pursuing this Grand Strategy (survival of the Empire) led to the adoption of a number of different strategies at any one time.

One favourite strategy of the Byzantines was to ensure the loyalty of other tribes to Constantinople so that they would not ally with one another, or with any of the other regional powers. Tactically, this usually meant buying their loyalty with gold or other tradeable goods or with an offer of protection.

So, if Grand Strategy is the Mission which guides everything you do and want to do, a strategy is a way of achieving that Mission – a broad set of coordinated actions and plans which contribute directly to it. Montgomery summarises it as the ‘ art of distribution’ – in other words, strategy is the art of allocating your resources wisely. In developing a strategy you have to decide how you will deploy your resources according to the importance of any particular part of your plan. You can think of this as a process of high-level budgeting or business planning in which you decide where it is actually best to put your money and your time so that you achieve the Mission. It is at this part of the planning process that so many organisations fall down, and this is perhaps the most vital component because it is the link between the overall Mission and the actual, practical actions you do every day.

A strategy has to be flexible enough to allow for various tactical developments, but it also has to be clear enough and so well defined that everybody who needs to understand it can do so easily and everybody knows the direction they are going in. It has to be revisited in the light of new information and change, but it also has to give you a strong framework which can last (at least in outline) over an extended period. One way of dealing with rapid technological change and uncertainty is to make sure that your strategy recognises the need for innovation and adaptability throughout the business. So you can then devise tactics and structures that will help you to identify, analyse and assimilate new trends or behaviours as they occur. This will help you to stay relevant and make sure you’re not always catching up with new developments.

The tactics, which follow from the strategy, are the individual actions that help you to achieve strategic objectives. This is the method of implementation of your strategy. It is control of troops when they are actually engaged in fighting, on the battlefield. It is Hannibal at Cannae, drawing the Romans into a deadly encirclement. Once you have decided what resources you need to achieve each part of the strategy, you can then begin to plan how they will be employed in practice, and develop the fine detail of your plans.

Now, it’s easy to deconstruct this approach to planning and to pick holes in some of these definitions, but as a way of ordering the planning process, this military simplicity has its advantages. One thing Monty doesn’t treat in great detail is the role of intelligence – information to you and me – in planning. Although he does note the vital role that surprise plays in creating tactical military advantage. Surprise, he argues, gives a commander an irreplaceable advantage in combat. But surprise can only be exploited if you know more about your enemy’s preparations than he knows about you. Most successful military commanders have relied on informants or spies to create this, what Joseph Stiglitz would call ‘information asymmetry’. Genghis Khan very famously sent his generals to live in Europe for over a year to study local defences and tactics before embarking on his invasion. He also adopted new technologies quickly for his own use, especially siege weapons from the Huan Chinese.

Incidentally, Montgomery rates Genghis Khan above both Alexander and Julius Caesar in his list of great commanders, principally because of Genghis’ seemingly preternatural ability to predict the time it would take different parts of his army to traverse certain distances. The most famous example of this being the destruction of the Khwarezmi army at Samarkand in which Genghis’ main invasion force was joined by the smaller force led by his sons Chaghatai and Ogedei. Many historians today attribute this skill to Genghis’ greatest general, Subutai, who later perfected it in the invasions of Poland and Hungary, but Genghis himself must have had formidable strategic abilities to plot so many successful campaigns over such a short period of time.

There are as many ways to do planning as there are to skin a cat, but Genghis Khan didn’t get to the gates of Warsaw by being a rubbish leader. He knew how to plan huge manoeuvres and how to make best use of a vast array of resources. And Montgomery (Market Garden aside) also had a pretty enviable record. So maybe there are things we can all learn from them when it comes to setting out on our own quests for world domination.

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